It’s nice to see him up so early. Wearing his new shirt. One of his new shirts. Coral pink. It suits him. He’s admiring his reflection in the mirror on the wardrobe door.
I say ‘Nice shirt. It suits you.’
He says ‘I bought it in the sale’.
I say ‘All six?’
‘They were half price. I couldn’t resist’.
I know he’s lying. The receipt was in the bag.
Bruno calls ‘So how’d it go?’
‘OK, I guess. ‘
‘So how much do they want for it?’
‘It wasn’t that kind of discussion.’
‘Did you talk to the husband?’
‘I got the distinct impression he wasn’t there.’
‘He can’t have disappeared completely’.
‘I am beginning to wonder if he actually exists.’
Daniel has changed his shirt. Duck-egg blue. He can’t make a decision. I feel a flash of irritation. I’ve been worrying that he’s suicidal. That we’re running out of money. That we’re going to lose the house. He’s trying to decide which shade of sherbet suits him best.
This isn’t the time to say my piece. To touch on tricky subjects. We’re both about to leave the house.
I do it all the same.
He is quick to offer reassurance. I can stop my stealthy searches of the house. He isn’t suicidal. His strategy is clear.
‘I wouldn’t do it. I’d disappear instead.’ He says serenely. ‘I’ll be one of those men you read about who pop out for a bag of sugar and are never seen again’.
It’s evident he’s given it some thought.
It’s reassuring in a way. I’m not completely paranoid. I have every right to flinch a little every time he leaves. To wonder if he’s coming back.
I’m not sure where this would leave us. The impact on the children. The ambiguous legal and financial implications. Unremitting uncertainty. Life in limbo. An eternity of abandonment; of confusion, grief and guilt.
On balance I think I’d rather have him dead.
HOME SWEET HOME
We meet at Macey’s Lodge. Our new HQ. A museum to suburban domesticity. Avocado bathroom; Artex; fake brick fireplace; fake log fire. Ducks flying up the wall. Three-in-a-row. Well, two-and-a-half. The bottom one’s lost half a wing and both its feet. They’d be flying up a staircase if there was one. If it wasn’t a bungalow.
Grassroots Developers. We don’t lord it up in London. Or hide behind green-tinted windows on a distant business park. We’re here. Right here. On site. In the community. Of. This. Place.
Bruno is eyeing up the Artex. ‘How can you live like this?’
‘I don’t. It’s just an office. I work like this. We work like this. It’s your office too.’
‘Hmm.’ He says. ‘I’m just part time, remember. And I didn’t sign up for this.’
He is staring at the footless duck.
‘What’s with the décor? Is it meant to be ironic?’
‘It’s determinedly domestic.’
‘I guess it has a certain camp appeal.’
‘Apparently it’s haunted.’
‘Why am I not surprised?’
We need to sort out the material for the public consultation. It’s the same dilemma every time. If we show any plans at all we’ll be accused of having made our minds up; of running a public consultation process that’s a whitewash and a farce. If we don’t show any drawings we’ll be charged with being secretive and furtive; of wasting everybody’s time.
We need to present something. But it’s hard to know quite what. We can’t show the access from the High Street. We don’t want to give any suggestion that the project is dependent on the strip of land beside the Kirkbys’ house. It’ll be impossible to negotiate. They’ll charge whatever they want. We could draw up a red herring; a bogus scheme we hope we’ll never build. With access on the south side, coming out on Risborough Road.
Bruno says ‘Well it’ll make the existing residents happy. Newcomers in their fancy houses without a cat in hell’s chance of getting their kids into the school.’
‘It might buy us an easy ride next Wednesday.’ I reply. ‘But we’ll be storing up all kinds of trouble for later. If we do get access from the High Street they’ll all say they were tricked.’
Lester says. ‘We need to get a price agreed with Mr Kirkby. If we can get an in principle agreement I don’t mind going public with our plans. Did you manage to pin him down?’
Bruno is looking at the floor.
I say ‘We’re beginning to have doubts that Mr Kirkby actually exists.’
‘Dear God.’ He says. ‘I’ll talk to him myself.’
Bruno drums his fingers on the table.
He says ‘I wonder how Lester’s getting on’. He looks out across the darkness towards Linda Kirkby’s house. Alan and Linda Kirkby’s house.
I say ‘There’s a light on in the back window. I guess somebody’s at home.’
Bruno says ‘You’d have thought she’d have been the type to have net curtains.’
I say ‘She loves her view’.
In any case, she’s got nobody to hide from. No-one overlooks her. At least, they didn’t. Until we came along. Until we shattered her existence. Until we threatened her view.
Bruno says ‘We need to get some proper curtains.’
We are standing at the window. Illuminated; vulnerable; exposed. Gazing out across the field. Across the gloom, to the hospital beyond.
Bruno says ‘You can see why they say this place is haunted.’
We both fall silent. Too self-conscious to articulate our fear.
Bruno is the first to speak. ‘Is there some sort of light on in the hospital?’
I say ‘There can’t be. The whole place was disconnected years ago’.
But he’s right. There is a light. Feint but clearly visible.
‘What is that building?’
In the daylight it’s just a project. A costly conservation challenge. Damaged real estate. It’s different in the half-light. Sinister. Unknowable. I strain my eyes to trace the shapes and shadows. The soaring silhouette of Gothic Victoriana. The arches and the doorways. The turrets and the towers.
‘I think it’s the Infectious Diseases Unit. Someone must have left a torch on when they were doing the structural survey.’
Bruno says ‘It’s moving.’
It moves. It flickers. It dies.
Bruno says ‘You’ve got to ask yourself why any self-respecting ghost would hang around in this place when they could be haunting that.’
He’s right. No ghost in their right mind would choose the fifties bungalow.
Bruno freezes. Draws in his breath.
I say ‘Are you OK?’
He says ‘I thought I saw a ghost’.
It’s not a ghost. It’s Irene Grover. White hair. Transluscent skin. And strangely fragile. Almost skeletal. She’s dressed in white from head to toe. God knows how she keeps her trousers free from mud.
She says ‘They said I’d find you here.’
She looks at Bruno with suspicion. I say ‘This is Bruno Brown. He’s in charge of sales and marketing.’
Bruno says ‘We spoke on the phone.’
She says ‘What did you say your surname was?’
‘Brown. Bruno Brown.’
She gives him a long hard look before she says ‘How singularly apt.’
I say ‘Did you want something in particular?’
‘There have been people taking measurements on Macey’s Patch.’
‘They’re carrying out a survey.’
‘They’ve got no right to be there.’
Bruno flashes his widest smile. ‘We own the land, and we employed them. They have every right to be there.’
She looks at me accusingly. ‘I thought we had a deal.’
Bruno is looking at me too. Eyebrows raised.
I choose my words with care.
‘I said I couldn’t make any promises’.
‘And I said you’d make your life a whole lot easier if you left Macey’s Patch alone.’
‘I know. I remember.’
‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
With that she’s gone.
I lock the door behind her.
Bruno says ‘Was that a threat?’
Lester’s back. We look at him expectantly.
He says ‘Don’t tell me you two have just been sitting here waiting for me to get back.’
I say ‘We’ve been listening to local residents’ views.’
Bruno says ‘We’ve been threatened by a pensioner.’
Lester days ‘Nice work.’
Bruno ups the ante. ‘And racially abused.’
‘By the same person?’ Lester asks, confused.
I say ‘So did you get to speak to Alan Kirkby?’
Lester says ‘It would make life a whole lot easier if we could leave the access where it is. On Risborough Road. Are we absolutely certain we’ve got this admissions policy right?’
I guess he hasn’t struck a deal.
Bruno has the answer at his fingertips. ‘We checked with the school. The catchment area’s a mile in all directions. More if the intake’s low. A bit less in busy years. If you live on the High Street you’re guaranteed a place. Nobody from Risborough Road has ever made the cut.’
Lester is looking skeptical.
‘How do they calculate the distance? Do they do it by the road network or as the crow flies. If it’s as the crow flies it doesn’t make any difference. They’ll all get in regardless. If they do it by the actual distance you have to travel, it’s a disaster.
Bruno and I look sheepish. We never thought to check.
Lester is shouting again. ‘Call the school and find out. Oh, and if they’re measuring the actual journey ask them if it makes a difference if it’s by foot or car. We might be able to get a pedestrian right of way through to the High Street even if we can’t sort out a proper road.’
Lester’s gone. Just like that. No explanation. No good-bye.
‘I guess Lester didn’t get to talk to Mr Kirkby either.’ Says Bruno. ‘You must admit it’s strange. The moment we start looking for him, he’s nowhere to be found.’
‘So, what? Do you think Mrs. Kirkby’s murdered him? Buried him under Macey’s Patch?’
‘Maybe Irene Grover murdered him.’
‘Maybe he just left.’
‘I’d be off like a shot if I had a mother-in-law like that.’
‘Grandmother-in-law.’ I say pedantically. ‘She must be ninety-five if she’s a day.’
‘That woman gives me the creeps.’
I think of Daniel. Of the things he has to say now that he’s found the words to say them. He tells me he feels trapped. Trapped in this life, this house. This is not the place – the man – he wants to be. The home we’ve made is now his prison. His sights are on escape. He tells me it’s his problem. That it isn’t about me. My children’s father is leaving me; my family falling apart. I would like to claim this story, a cameo role at least.
I am struggling with the depth of the betrayal, the extent of the rejection, the enormity of my failure. I need a different version of events. The children are fighting for their version of reality. They draw pictures of Mummy, Daddy, Sonny, Kit; a happy domesticity that lives entirely in their heads. I play with different turns of phrase, nuances that subtly shift the blame from him to me and back again. We need a story that makes sense. A story to agree on. Ideally, I’d like a story we can give the kids.
Bruno says ‘Are you OK?’
I say ‘Perhaps he just felt trapped’.